Living with the Samsung Galaxy S6: In-depth camera review25
A month ago, I was entrusted with our resident Samsung Galaxy S6 and told to live with it. I have been doing just that for the past month or so, just like I did with its predecessor — the Galaxy S5 — a year ago. Why? It's simple: When you're forced to live with a smartphone, you tend to discover stuff about it that aren't immediately apparent. That is, getting to really know Samsung's 2015 flagship takes time, just like it does with any of its competitors.
In any case, for today's episode I'll be focusing on another part of the new TouchWiz experience, but one that is just as much hardware-bound as it is software: the camera. Samsung has re-done the entire interface here, and the TouchWiz camera app of old is gone. The gear on the back is also more impressive than before, positioning the Galaxy S6 as one of the best (if not the best) camera phones currently on the market.
Let's dig in.
Catering to both worlds
If my detailed Galaxy S6 display review wasn't enough to convince you, then the new Camera app of the Galaxy S6 certainly will: Samsung is switching gears, and is now working on bringing the best of both worlds to TouchWiz. That is, just like the display modes of the S6 will appeal both to calibration nuts and AMOLED junkies, so is the Camera app designed with both advanced and novice users in mind.
To illustrate this point, all I need to do is show you a few screenshots of the camera interface as it looks by default. We've got minimal clutter, as only essential controls and switches are available — like flash, HDR, countdown timers, and effects — and they can all be hidden from sight with a single tap. It's a well laid out UI and it's comfortable to use both in portrait and landscape.
The massive, laggy Settings menu of old is gone too, and good riddance. We now have a more Android Lollipop-like menu, with no distracting icons that had you guess before figuring out that you could simply read the label — not that that helped amateur users much. In any case, we've got the usual suspects as far as options go: Picture size (16MP, 16:9 being default), Video size (UHD 4K tops), location tags, an option to enable grid lines, and another to enable reviewing of pictures immediately after they were captured. That's not all, however.
Tracking AF is a new feature, currently exclusive to the Galaxy S6. When enabled, it allows you to set auto focus so that it follows a moving object effortlessly. I — and as far as I know any other author at PhoneArena — haven't yet had an opening begging for Tracking AF, so I consider this mostly for shows. I'm sure some of you might think differently.
The Video stabilization option is one that I suspect will confuse a lot of people, and contribute to a lot of crappy clips taken on the Galaxy S6's otherwise very good camcorder. After all, it sounds like a good idea — who doesn't want their video to be stabilized, right? Unfortunately, this setting has nothing to do with the optical stabilization gizmo on the Galaxy S6 — it's all software, as Samsung veterans will likely know.
What it does is fairly simple to explain. Essentially, with video stabilization on, the Galaxy S6 will not capture at its full resolution, leaving the extra pixels around its new field of view as a sort of buffer — they're there to ensure that if the footage becomes shaky, the software can use them to create the impression of less shaky footage. It works fine, but quality drops, and you're obviously getting a lower resolution video. Honestly, you're better off with this particular feature turned off — forever.
Quick Launch, Voice control, and Volume keys function
The trio of options at the bottom are all easy to grasp, so I'll get them out of the way in one go.
Starting with Quick Launch, which is enabled by default, it's basically a shortcut that allows you to fire up the camera by double clicking the physical Home button twice in a row. It works at all times, regardless of what you're doing — even if you're gaming, you can still quickly summon the camera and take a shot. I won't lie, I'm absolutely in love with this feature, and this is only way I launch the camera now — I don't even have an icon for it on my home screens.
Moving on to Voice control, the feature enables a set of spoken triggers that could make it easier for some to take pictures and video. For example, "Capture!", "Smile!", "Cheese!", and "Shoot!" will all tell the Galaxy S6 to instantly snap a photo (it works really fast), while "Record video" will... well, start video recording.
Lastly, Volume keys function I found quite handy — it lets you assign an action to your volume key. By default, it's set to just take a picture (very useful for selfies), but you can switch it so that it starts recording video or zooms in and out.
The shooting modes illusion
If there's one thing the TouchWiz camera is well known for, it is its abundance of shooting modes, both standard and wild. With the Galaxy S6, however, Samsung hardliners may find themselves initially shocked, as most of these appear to be gone — a byproduct of Samsung's new focus on simplicity.
Indeed, by default, the number of modes available is limited to "just" 7, but breathe easy, for an additional 8 (or 15 in total) can be downloaded off the Galaxy Apps store. Most of them are remnants from the feature-heavy TouchWiz era, but a few have actually changed, and not always for the better.
It's a new mode, but it really doesn't bring anything new to the table.
Selective Focus was first made available on the Galaxy S5, but after an identity crisis, decided that it isn't, after all, what it initially set out to be: a dedicated mode to apply bokeh effect to images. Nowadays, Selective Focus is a different kind of animal, allowing you to instead pick focus post-capture — you can focus the foreground, the background, or both with pan focus.
Like before, it's a bit finicky to use, but much improved overall. Still, you need to have your subject within 20 inches from the lens, and as far back as the background is from it, the better. Generally, the algorithms appear adequate and seem to tell the foreground from the background with relative ease.
Panorama and Surround Shot
Panorama and Surround Shot are quite alike in that they both can capture gigantic scenes and fit them all inside a single file. They're also qutie different, for with Surround Shot you can produce immersive, 360-degree panoramic photos that are a wonder to explore after, at least in my (rather unpopular) opinion.
Starting with the former, I've gotta say that Samsung has got panoramas down cold. Unless you seriously mess up, stitching errors are essentially non-existent, exposure is corrected for as you go through dynamic scenes, and the resolution is incredible — over 18,000 pixels wide and 3,000 pixels high at most (in landscape). A panorama this large usually costs about 20 megs in storage. The only smartphone currently on the market to best this kind of crazy resolutions is the LG G4.
Moving onto Surround Shot — a personal favorite shooting mode of mine, if it isn't clear — I couldn't help but smile after I took the Galaxy S6 out for some 360 action. Not only are the results incredibly good on a tripod, but I was also able to rather easily snap near perfectly-stitched 360s without one, using just my hands. If you haven't used this mode, you'll probably shrug at this, but it wasn't long ago that such wizardry was beyond the skills of even Google's Android team, which was first-to-market with the feature in Android Jelly Bean.
Virtual Shot succeeds Virtual Tour
With the Galaxy S5, Samsung debuted a rather interesting concept for the camera, called Virtual Tour. In essence, it allowed you to create these mini tours of places by stitching a number of pictures taken as you go by, and then adding a transitional effect (for a lack of a better word). The results were... meh, but the idea wasn't all bad, at least if Samsung invested in a hosting site, where they could be published. Otherwise, the resulting files are unreadable on anything else but the Galaxy S5.
Turns out, Samsung decided that ditching Virtual Tour altogether was the more logical choice, and I can't say I disagree completely. Instead of leaving it at that, however, Samsung has instead introduced a new Virtual Shot mode, which is both similar and quite different. Basically, what it does is allow you to take a string of snaps of a subject from all sides, and then preview it in something approaching 360-degree viewer inside the phone. This means that Virtual Shot, like Virtual Tour before it, suffers the same fate, as there's simply no way that I know of to share these files. In other words, it's worthless, and it shouldn't even be available by default — make it an optional download instead.
The worthless trio
The worthless trio is what I like calling three particularly ill-conceived shooting modes available on the Galaxy S6, one of which is available by default.
Starting with 'Fast motion', this is simply Samsung speak for a time lapse mode, which, in normal speak, typically means the camera shoots for a really long time, but the resulting footage is condensed into just a few short minutes. The effect is obvious — it's a sprint through time. It can be used to produce some pretty incredible footage, if done right.
Unfortunately, Fast motion suffers from one bewildering limitation that essentially render it useless — there's a 25 minute time cap. You read that right, the mode that is supposed to let you capture events that usually take many hours or cycle between several, is limited to just 25 minutes of shooting. As you can imagine, this severely limits the use case scenarios available to the Galaxy S6, and we can't help but wonder why. In any case, resulting clips are just normal clips unless you edit and export them as time lapse video.
Lastly, a new Animated GIF mode has taken over the Galaxy S5's Animated photo, which was actually a clever, occasionally useful mode for some laughs. Before, you could select a small (or lage) portion of the image that would remain live (as in a .GIF), while the rest is stationary. I showed off one amusing example of this (right below), and eventually grew to appreciate the creative spark the mode inspired. With Animated GIF, however, all the S6's camera is doing is take 20 consecutive pictures, and then string them together in a GIF. As you can imagine, with so few frames available at most, the use case scenarios open to this mode are basically non-existent. But hey, at least it comes out as a GIF and can be shared with others.
The rest of the shooting modes are fairly self-explanatory, with some small exceptions. We're down to just Sports, Rear-cam selfie, Dual camera, and Food.
Starting with Sports, it's a dedicated mode that overrides the usual automatic instruction set of the camera, and allows for it to shoot at really high shutter speeds, meaning you're more likely freeze a moment than usually, avoiding blur. As for Rear-cam selfie, it simply uses face detection to know when to take a snap, and beeps throughout the entire process to allow you to more easily point it properly. As for Dual camera, again, it's obvious — the Galaxy S6 simply takes a snap with both the front and back camera simultaneously. It has a few effects for the front camera window, and can even format the two images so they're side-by-side, instead of one superimposed over the other.
Finally, Food is a curious and relatively new mode that will help you take more tempting images of your... food. This is achieved with the help of a color temperature slider, which you'd usually want to push high for warmer hues. The mode also allows you to crop the image as you take it, with a choice between the standard, 16:9 aspect ratio, 4:3, and 1:1 (for the Instagram fans). Here's an example comparison:
Image and Video quality
While any camera review should obviously include examples of image and video quality, I'll condense mine and the team's findings over the past few months, as we've already covered this part in our extensive camera comparison series before and in our dedicated Galaxy S6 review. At this point in time, it suffices to say that the Galaxy S6 is the best you can do if you're looking for a modern camera phone.
Indeed, the Galaxy S6 is both a fast camera, and a reliable one. It suffers no consistent issues, and though it's not perfect, it manages to produce near-immaculate stills in daytime, and is one of the best on the market when it comes to challenging, low-light scenarios. The former is the result of very rich detail and faithful color representation, while the latter is made possible in large thanks to the very wide, f/1.9 aperture lens and optical stabilization. That last part ensures that the Galaxy S6 doesn't need to crank up ISO too high and then smear detail with noise reduction techniques, nor does it have to risk producing a blurry shot because it has to expose for too long.
If there was one thing we'd prefer was otherwise, it would have to be the Galaxy S6's 16:9 aspect ratio when shooting with at 16MP. As you can imagine, this can occasionally ruin an otherwise workable composition, as it simply can't capture as much information since the vertical angle of view is narrower, so you either have to move back away from your subject, or settle for a lousy shot. That's scarcely the case at all times, of course, but I definitely prefer a 4:3 sensor (all things being equal). Here's an example of what I'm talking about:
With the details out of the way, I'm including a whole bunch of samples that I captured during my time living with the Galaxy S6. The idea was to capture both images without much thought being given to the process or composition, as is typical of the average user. On the other hand, a select few samples were well thought-out and are intended to exemplify what the 16-megapixel snapper is capable of, including tricky low light scenarios, freeze shots, and highly dynamic compositions where the S6's excellent HDR mode works wonders. These are full-sized samples, without any editing done to them, so load times will depend on your connection.
Take a look.
Moving onto video, I've got to say that optical stabilization is not only a boon to stills quality, for it allows for some relatively shake-free video footage too. Speaking of that, the Galaxy S6 is chock-full with shooting modes, including 4K UHD, QHD (2560x1440), and 1080p at 30 and 60 frames per second. There's also the aforementioned time lapse mode, but also a dedicated slow motion mode that lets you capture 120 frames per second for some smooth clips. Unfortunately, both these are limited to 720p resolution, and it shows.
If this break down failed to illustrate my point, let me say it simply: The camera of the Galaxy S6 is among the most versatile currently on the market, and certainly one of the most — if not the most — capable. Sure, its performance is very similar to what's on offer with the Galaxy Note 4, but Samsung's now aging phablet has other disadvantages, such as an inferior interface. It's also noticeably slower to take an image.
The S6's shooter — both on a hardware and software level — is also a good example of what appears to be a new philosophy on Samsung's end. It feels like the company is going for a more streamlined user experience for the average user, while making sure there are still more than enough goodies for the more adventurous, power user crowd. It's a way for Samsung to move into new territory without forgetting its most ardent, core user base, and that's a smart move.
This story is part of:Living with the Samsung Galaxy S6 (4 updates)
16 June Living with the Samsung Galaxy S6: In-depth camera review
26 May Living with the Samsung Galaxy S6, week 2: TouchWiz like you wouldn't believe it
12 May Living with the Samsung Galaxy S6, week 1: The cool embrace of metal-on-glass
24 April Living with the Samsung Galaxy S6: Day Zero